Teens bound by nuclear
By Annette Caryacary@tri-cityherald.com
Herald staff writer
Three-year-old Maryna Pichkur was memorizing a poem with her father when the Chernobyl reactor melted down in 1986 and "that invisible cunning death" entered her life.
Her father, who was sent to patrol the accident scene, is sick now.
Halfway around the world, Erin Donahoe was growing up in Richland, a town where words like "plutonium" and "radiation" are as likely to be heard on the evening news as "taxes," she says.
Both know what it's like to grow up in towns that revolve around the nuclear industry, where a culture of secrecy hangs on and where outsiders may not understand residents' pride in their controversial communities.
But in a new book, written by Pichkur, Donahoe and their fellow students, they explain.
What started out as a class project at Hanford Middle School is now a 306-page book of essays published by Battelle Press.
Using nearly daily e-mails and frequent videoconferences, students ages 13 to 16 in Richland and Slavutych, Ukraine, traded ideas for essay topics, swapped photos and edited each other's writing.
The result was Nuclear Legacy: Students of Two Atomic Cities. Students from both towns write about how their communities were formed as government-owned towns in recent decades to support the nuclear industry. They write about their communities' often difficult efforts to move beyond reliance on the nuclear industry. They discuss their hopes for the future.
Richland student Michael McCain tackles technical topics such as gaseous diffusion in America's race to develop the atom bomb during World War II. His classmates, Kylie Fullmer and Ben Ford, capture the flavor of the community with a tribute to the Spudnut Shop in downtown Richland and its mouthwatering pastries.
Students in Slavutych write of their former home, Pripyat, which was washed in the radiation from the nearby reactor.
"Imagine: People love their town, their home, their family, their work," writes Kateryna Khropata. "They spend their weekends at the river or in the forest, they wait for spring to come, they are happy and don't even think that it all might suddenly end."
Yuliya Lapinska writes of her new hometown, Slavutych, populated with residents evacuated from Pripyat. "Only photos and a memorial monument, placed in our town's square, are left to remind us of those who died," she writes.
"These people cannot be resurrected with tears," she writes. "Although it seems to me, if it were possible, every person on the planet Earth should sacrifice some of his or her soul to make these people alive again."
Each essay is printed twice - an English version alongside a Ukrainian version.
The book was certainly not what students envisioned, said Donahoe, now a junior at Hanford High School and student editor of the book.
When she was in eighth grade, her teacher, Maureen McQuerry, had her class of gifted and talented students collaborate on a Web page with Ukrainian students.
In 10th grade, Donahoe returned to lead McQuerry's eighth-grade students in her latest project, collaborating with Ukrainian students on a project to better understand the nuclear era.
Donahoe thought they might publish a pamphlet.
But by the end of that semester, a year ago, students wanted to continue and spent their summer working on the project. Most of the essays were written in a rough form then, and they needed polishing and editing.
Writing styles of both groups of students were very different, Donahoe said.
"Theirs was much more flowery. Ours was straight to the point," she said. Both compromised for a goal of essays that were "readable but still informative," she said.
Donahoe said the book would not have been published without McQuerry's belief in the project and her work to get backing and overcome logistical problems.
"Many people told her we couldn't do it," Donahoe said. "But she was always positive and excited."
Wednesday, McQuerry carried 20 copies of the book to Olympia, all requested by Gov. Gary Locke. She came home with the prestigious Christa McAuliffe Fellowship Award in recognition of her project leadership and innovation.
More copies have been sent to universities across the nation and to most larger middle schools in Washington. One copy is being reviewed as a possible gift for President Clinton to present during a June trip to Ukraine.
The students also had the cooperation of Richland's scientific community for the book. Bechtel, which is stabilizing the Chernobyl reactor shelter, donated $5,000.
Battelle, which also is working on the shelter project, gave students liberal access to its videoconferencing equipment. Battelle employees also helped with editing and translation, and Dorothy Wegeng of Richland-based Dorothy Wegeng Graphic Design laid out the book to students' specifications.
"It was a big day in class when we knew the publisher was coming to talk to us," Donahoe said.
Donahoe, who visited Ukraine in an exchange paid for by Battelle, said she found the communities and their people more alike than different.
"I think they were struck by that, too - that Americans could be so much like them," she said.
Despite the safety issues tragically demonstrated in Ukraine, she thinks the students' book will help put nuclear issues in perspective for readers.
"I think nuclear is a taboo word in America much more than it needs to be," she said. "This provides a different viewpoint than people have heard before."
Nuclear Legacy, which costs $22.50, is sold by Internet booksellers such as Amazon.com and also is available in Tri-City bookstores. Today students will be signing copies at 3 p.m. at The Bookworm, 201 N. Edison St., Kennewick, and at 4:30 p.m. at The Bookworm, 1908 George Washington Way, Richland.